Italians are great dancers, but they don't get much opportunity to demonstrate that in their homeland.
The history of ballet is adorned with Italian talent: Giuseppina Bozzacchi was the first Swanhilda in Coppélia; three dazzling stars, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito, and Marie Taglioni (also the first Sylphide) were celebrated by Perrot in his Pas de Quattre; Pierina Legnani was named Prima Ballerina Assoluta by Petipa at the Mariinsky and was the first ballerina to perform 32 fouettés; Petipa created La Esmeralda pas de six for Virginia Zucchi, and so on.
Although they didn't come as thick and fast in the 20th century, Italia's living legend Carla Fracci certainly made her mark internationally, as did Elisabetta Terrabust and Liliana Cosi, and London's Royal Ballet is surely grateful for the presence of Alessandra Ferri, Viviana Durante and Mara Galeazzi.
Enrico Cecchetti, more famous now for his method, was a great virtuoso dancer, and became a principal at the Mariinsky in 1887. Paolo Bortoluzzi was a principal with the American Ballet Theatre until 1981, and Roberto Bolle is currently a principal with the company. Massimo Murru and Giuseppe Picone are on the international circuit, and Federico Bonelli is yet another Italian to join the ranks of the Royal Ballet. In the Paris Opera Ballet we find Alessio Carbone and Eleonora Abbagnato, and young whippersnapper Vito Mazzeo has recently become a principal at San Francisco Ballet.
So all's well then. Well no. Ballet seems to be slowly dying in Italy.
Italian balletomanes enviously flick through the programmes of The Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, and the Mariinsky and Bolshoi Ballets with their high-octane star dancers, or gaze longingly at the mouth-watering guest rosters in New York. Not that the guests don't arrive in Italy: Svetlana Zakharova has just danced in Rome and is a regular at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, who have also signed up Natalia Osipova for three ballets next season. Paris Opera's Dorothèe Gilbert, and Stuttgart Ballet's Marijn Rademaker will guest in Rome for Romeo and Juliet after the summer, and Stuttgart's Friedemann Vogel and the Mariinsky's Olesia Novikova will return to La Scala for La Raymonda. The key issue isn't who is dancing, but how many opportunities there are to dance. Performance numbers are miserly, and quantity is clearly linked to quality in the classical repertory: the Bayadère can't hope to have 32 perfect shadows if the corps dances it only six times in a season.
Here's an idea of numbers. Rome Opera Ballet gave 45 performances during the 2011-2012 season, and that includes the open air summer performances; La Scala has 48 performances in Milan this season, plus 6 in Moscow and 14 in Brazil. The Royal Ballet gave 26 performances in December 2011 alone, and the American Ballet Theatre gives 56 performances during its annual 2-month residency at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Italy's chequered history (it is a country younger than the United States) has lead to it being divided into many small ‘kingdoms' with many mid-sized cities – Verona, Venice, Palermo etc – but only Rome and Milan have more than 1 million inhabitants. Rome's 2½ million is dwarfed by New York and London's 8 million. Less people, less performances right? Well look at Cuba! Ok, it's a complicated equation, yet it is possible to get these companies dancing more.
When Carla Fracci was director of the Rome troupe they performed 67 times in Rome during the 2008 season, and there was also a small touring schedule. I don't have the figures to say whether these performances were packed or not, but the dancers were certainly dancing. In that season the repertory ballets, Raymonda and Le Corsaire were given 9 performances each; this season Coppélia and Giselle had only 5, though it's true that the up-coming Romeo and Juliet will be presented 15 times.
Now things can only get worse as city councils start tightening their belts and government grants are cut. Various dance festivals and minor companies have already fallen by the wayside, and corps numbers in Florence, Verona and Naples reduced. That leaves only the Rome and Milan companies capable of presenting a repertoire ballet. It would need a flick of President Giorgio Napolitano's magic fairy wand to resolve the situation in an Italy fighting desperately for its economic life, but maybe only Lilac Fairies have those.
So the dance drain will continue as dancers who want to spend their short career actually on-stage escape abroad. And the poor Italian ballet fan will be left dreaming of the oft-told tales from far-off shores of ballet calendars as long as the Bayadère's scarf, full of dancing stars who glitter like Aurora's crown.
top from left, Alessandra Ferri; Carla Fracci; Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito, and Marie Taglioni with Lucille Grahn in the Pas de quattre; Viviana Durante.
bottom from left, Enrico Cecchetti coaching Anna Pavlova; Paolo Bortoluzzi, Roberto Bolle, Vito Mazzeo.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.